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History's Headlines: The Great Bethlehem Steel Strike of 1910

History's Headlines: Bethlehem Steel Strike of 1910

Ron Ennis is not a professional historian. As a postal employee, active member of American Postal Workers Union #238, and editor of the Lehigh Valley Labor Council's newsletter, he has plenty to do that has nothing to do with the past. But Ennis sees at least part of his task to record the labor history of the Lehigh Valley, and recently he has published an account of the Bethlehem Steel Strike of 1910. It was the first major labor action at the once mighty company that is itself history. For Ennis and many others in the Valley, it is important on this upcoming Labor Day that this history not be forgotten.

What was it like 102 years ago at Bethlehem Steel? Well, since the start of the 20th century the company had been undergoing much turmoil. In 1904 the company had been sold from the original founders- descendents of Asa Packer- who had helped found it as Bethlehem Iron in the 1860s, to the dynamic young steel-maker, Charles M. Schwab. He was a new model of business tycoon, different than Bethlehem Steel had seen before.

Prior to that, the company had grown from a maker of iron railroad rails under the direction of Robert Sayre and John Fritz to a builder of naval arms that transformed the U.S. Navy. Although far from being a backwater, its approach was somewhat paternalistic. The steel company owners lived in South Bethlehem and felt a kinship with their workers in that they both were making steel. As the local police chief said when recalling a minor labor dispute in 1883, "We know just what the men are up against and how a little thing may lead them to a scrape against their will. But the men know us and if we tell them they are in the wrong they are satisfied."

But Schwab, who was trained by Andrew Carnegie in the western Pennsylvania steel business, had no ties to the Fountain Hill elite of South Bethlehem. On taking over the company he saw Bethlehem's potential as an international arms maker and plunged in. Soon Latin American republics, Czarist Russia and imperial Japan were customers. And in a daring gamble that turned out to be a brilliant move, in 1909 he began producing the wide flanged steel H beams that made America's skyscraper era possible, and also made a lot of money for Bethlehem Steel.

Schwab liked to think of himself as we might say today "a regular guy." And as a person, the steel mill owner was generally popular among the workers. He encouraged them to call him "Charlie." Schwab kept a close watch on his public image and was always upbeat in newspaper interviews.

But on a February day in 1910 the workers decided to take Schwab to task. They wanted him to raise their pay to 12 1/2 cents an hour and give them Sundays off. But more importantly, they wanted a change in the so-called bonus system-one they felt forced them to work overtime.

At this point there was no talk of a labor union. And Schwab, who had famously said, "I will not permit myself of being in the position of having labor dictate to management," seemed to take it in stride. Looking out his office window at a line of picketing workers he yelled, "Are you men on strike?" When they replied yes, Schwab replied, "Well I can stand it."  One of them-Anton Weber-responded that he could stand it as well and he would. The strike would last 108 days.

It was not long that the simple demands the workers had made were lost in the angry words of Schwab and strike leader David Williams of Allentown. On February 25 a five-hour long parade of workers and their families filled the streets of South Bethlehem. And, as often happens, the tensions between the groups mounted and finally the state police were called in. Ennis gives a detailed account of the clashes between the police and the workers and the confusion that followed.

The most significant incident of the strike came about when, at the height of the tensions, Josef Szambo, a Hungarian immigrant and steel worker, went into a local saloon seeking some wine to calm the stomach of his pregnant wife. A state police trooper, chasing some strikers who he claimed were taunting him, fired a shot and unfortunately killed the luckless Szambo, who had no part in the strike.

Clearly bringing in the state police had only made things worse. So Schwab tried another tactic. He called the leadership of South Bethlehem together and explained to them forcefully that a continued strike was helping no one and it might just lead to him pulling the company out of town. This apparently worked, as local support for the strike faded when strikers could no longer find a place to meet. Even a report by the U.S. government Bureau of Labor, which supported the workers, came too late to alter the fact that the workers needed work and returned under Schwab's terms. It was to be 1941 before Steel president Eugene Grace, after a short, violent strike, agreed to recognize the workers right to a union.

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